Sword of the Highlands

Page 26


She could feel the battle hunger of all those men pressing at her back like a physical thing, and it made her jittery. She tried to distract herself with fantasies of what seemed to be increasingly improbable escape attempts.
The mood had shifted dramatically among the clansmen, and they no longer pretended to hide their lascivious glances. Someone mentioned they weren't far from Montrose, and memories of James's gracious home gutted her, her belly heavy with mourning, for the life she had in New York and even for a life in Scotland that could have been.
"Let's pay a visit to the Ogilvys, shall we?" Campbell shouted to the masses as he reined in.
"I hear our good earl has taken a little trip out of country. Seems he wants naught to do with the Covenant.
"Aye, aye," he said to the grumbling crowd, "Ogilvy thinks his best strategy is to ignore us. Let's see if we can convince his sons otherwise."
The men erupted into deafening cheers.
Campbell turned to her and said, "Lady Ogilvy must b e sorely wanting for company, wouldn't you say, Magdalen?" She looked to the valley below. A manor house sat idyllic in a tree-edged glen, surrounded by modest cottages, a barn, and those other buildings necessary for running an estate. Her breath came shallow as she realized what she was about to be witness to.
"Gather some torches, gentlemen. Today we lunch at the bonnie House of Airlie, and I'd have a nice fire to take the chill from my bones."
There was a brief commotion, followed by distant screams as wave upon wave of Covenanters spilled down the hill toward Ogilvy lands, leaping and hollering their bloodlust. Torches appeared all around as if from nowhere, and already Magda saw tentative flames biting at thatched roofs.
A few dozen men had the main house surrounded, struggling with fire too stubborn to ignite such a large building. She heard a window smash, and a burst of flame belched from one of the first- story windows as someone thought to set their torch to the draperies. The sound of shattering glass echoed through the valley, as more men tossed in their torches, hopping in and out of the burning house with deranged glee. The smashed windows released the sounds of the screaming women within, and Magda slid from her horse, legs crumpling beneath her in her horror. The Ogilvy estate took hours to burn. Serving women climbed from high windows. Those who landed safely only suffered a worse fate at the hands of the men who snatched and dragged them into the trees.
Unable to fathom such butchery, Magda tu rned and stumbled from the scene, a knot of clansmen ever at her back, grumbling now to be missing the festivities.
Her hearing dimmed, and Magda instinctively cupped her ears. Her hands felt clammy and numb, as if she were being touched by someone else's chilled, damp fingers instead of her own. Remote thoughts quivered in the back of her mind, that she must be going into shock, that she'd soon pass out. And yet she couldn't muster concern for herself. Her heart fluttered a frantic beat, and she felt weak, insubstantial, that if she'd just let go, she could disperse, vaporous, into the air.
She found she'd slumped to the ground at the foot of a tree. Magda curled onto her side and shut her eyes, not quite caring if she lived or died.
* * *
Her body felt languorous, and warmth pulsed through her as a slow throb began between her legs. She longed to kiss James, to taste him, but she had to be satisfied with the feel of his hands, massaging her breasts, pinching gently at her nipples. Magda arched slightly, leaning into him. He pulled down the neck of her dress and cool air touched her skin, tightening her, beading her into rigid points. His fingernail flicked the tip of her exposed breast, and Magda slowly began to emerge from her sleep, aching for more.
The fingers pinched her with sudden roughness, and her eyes flew open, at once wide -awake, the sight of Campbell's looming face dousing the warmth that had filled her in sleep with cold shame and anger and tear.
His thin hair was pulled into a tight knot, exaggerating his broad forehead and the thick jowls at his chin. Magda began to shriek, and was silenced by Campbell's mouth, gnashing at her in a violent kiss. His lips were so thin she felt nothing but the stubble above his mouth and his teeth grinding into hers. He pushed her away.
"As lovely a sight as you are, I'd have you washed. You smell foul, woman."
Terror hammered her heart thin and fast in her chest. Magda quickly tugged her dress back up over her exposed breast.
"Yes," Campbell sneered. "Do cover yourself. We can't have any men eyeing your wares. You're my whore now."
Despair unfurled in her, smothering even her fear, leaving her gasping to pull air into her lungs. Magda thought now that she would risk anything to escape this man. Any other fate was preferable to remaining his captive. She'd get away from Campbell, or she would die.
"Up." He slapped Magda on the side of her hip. "We're a day's ride from Gloom, my base in the Lowlands." He stood and turned to mount his horse, held in stoic silence by a young, filthy-looking boy.
"Tonight you sleep in my castle. A proper wench in my very own bed." He laughed, trotting off.
* * *
She'd ridden the day in numb silence, unable to wrap her mind around all that had befallen her in the past weeks. Born to wealth in Manhattan, could she really be destined to die as the property of a cruel seventeenth-century clan chief?
Campbell's castle loomed high on a hill in the distance, and the sight of it brought fresh terror pounding through her veins. She refused to believe this. Refused to accept that she'd been sent back in time to this.
The castle wasn't a pretty one. It emerged, solid and sharp edged, high above a craggy, tree-tangled valley in the Ochil Hills. Unlike the romantic whimsy of other European castles she'd seen, this one seemed almost to portend a dreadful fate. Like something out of a fairy-tale nightmare, it featured a large, rectangular tower rising into the gray sky, its stone face and scant windows declaring the impossibility of escape.
Her horse skittered, and a burst of panic brought her back into the moment, her heart thumping to realize how close she'd come to the edge of a gorge yawning below her. The ravine was steep, and covered by a thick web of moss, leaves, and a few tenacious saplings fighting to take root. A thin stream of water burbled obliviously at the bottom.
"The Burn of Sorrow, aye?"
"What?" Magda asked, startled.
"That there's called the Burn of Sorrow" The anonymous clansman winked at her, as if merrily sharing an insider's knowledge of her future in Campbell's care.
"Is that a joke?" Magda tried to sound outraged, and she cursed the weak, warbling voice that escaped her.
"No, lass," he adopted an informative tone that annoyed her, and she felt a flicker of gratitude at feeling something other than the dread that was permanently lodged like a stone in her gut.
"The Marquis of Argyll, he's a powerful big man in Scotland, and he's keen to chill the bones of any who'd think to attack his lands. He's holdings aplenty in Scotland, aye? Inveraray Castle is his main seat, but we're off to his Castle Gloom now, of course. Oh aye," he said, seeing her look of astonishment at the name. "Long ago they'd renamed it Campbell Castle, but our marquis prefers the sound of the old name. The Campbells have a flair of mystery about them, aye? We've the Burn of Sorrow, Castle Gloom…
"Don't be fashed," he giggled, "there's always the Burn o' Care on the castle's far side." Chortling, he kicked his pony and jarred into a trot away from Magda and toward the front of the line.
The castle was as squat and stolid as it had appeared from afar. A stone wall surrounded the structure, enclosing a large courtyard, what looked like gardens, and a few buildings. All aspects of it were connected to, and dwarfed by, the enormous stone tower rising high above the rest like a medieval prison.
Once she got within the castle confines, that would be it for her. She knew it without a doubt.
Hearing something, she turned to see a man, about her age, smiling at her, his hand outstretched.
"To the stables?" He nodded toward her horse, his shaggy pink-blond eyebrows raised in question. "Shall I take her to the stables?"
She sized him up. He was short, but he had a wiry look to him, all tendons and thin ropes of muscle from a life spent training horses and hauling hay.
Magda looked around at the mobs of people milling about, some taking their own mounts to the stables, others handing theirs off to disappear into the shadows of the castle. The men who had been posted as her guard that day were busily tending to their own horses, seeming confident that she'd never leave these gates again.
Her mind worked frantically, scrambling for some final escape plan. But in her desperation, all she seemed to come up with was the hollow echo of defeat. "Um, do you mind…" she began, hoping for any excuse to postpone the inevitable.
She dismounted as gracefully as possible given the long day's ride, and mustered a sweet smile. "May I please take little… little Silver myself?" She patted her horse's neck, hoping an impromptu pet name might make her request more convincing. She thought it critical she be allowed to tend to her own horse. Buy herself just a few more minutes before disappearing into the castle's black depths.
"I've become so attached to her. I'd love to wipe her down myself. Maybe even steal a bit of oats." She shrugged her shoulders and grinned, praying it looked more coquettish than the grimace she feared she was producing.
Disarmed, and probably more than a little puzzled by her strange accent, the groomsman flashed her a ragged smile, and nodding frantically, gestured broadly to the stables.
She forced her shaking legs one in front of the other, keeping her clenched smile frozen on her face. She shot a sideways glance at the stableman. He wasn't leaving her side. "Alright then," she mumbled, thinking that would've been way too easy.
It was much quieter inside. Unbidden memories of her parents burst to the front of her mind, bringing tears to her eyes. They'd loved horses, loved visiting the stables at the track.
Stop it. She didn't have time to get sentimental now. She had to find a way out before they locked her inside Campbell's preposterously named Castle Gloom. While she still had a chance.